PUTIN ATTRACTS MEDIA ATTENTION IN WEST, BUT IS RUSSIA REALLY A PAPER TIGER?

Don’t Fear Moscow. Marginalize It.: Marc C. Johnson, National Review, Apr. 27, 2018— Not since the end of the Cold War has a Russian leader received as much wall-to-wall attention from the American media as Vladimir Putin.

The Strategic Goals of a Restored Russia: Michel Gurfinkiel, BESA, Apr. 15, 2018— The Soviet Union was not vanquished by the West in the Cold War.

Resonant Syria Strike Suggests Coordinated US-Israel Message to Russia and Iran: Avi Issacharoff, Times of Israel, Apr. 30, 2018— Hours after a mysterious “earthquake” — 2. 6 on the Richter scale — registered on the devices of the European Mediterranean Seismological Center, the circumstances behind the series of explosions that shook Syria overnight Sunday-Monday are starting to become clear.

Ukraine: Is Russia Planning A New Invasion?: Judith Bergman, Gatestone Institute, May 1, 2018— This April marks the fourth year of the ongoing war in Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russian backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, also known as the Donbas region.

On Topic Links

Let’s Make A Deal – But Do The Russians Want One?: Yigal Carmon, MEMRI, Apr. 24, 2018

Despite His Victory, Putin’s Problems Will Grow: Emil Avdaliani, BESA, Apr. 15, 2018

The Post-Election Ruminations of Vladimir Putin: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Tablet, Mar. 21, 2018

Novichok: How a Deadly Cold War Poison has Resurfaced in a Quiet English Town: Vladimir Isachenkov, National Post, Apr. 23, 2018

 

DON’T FEAR MOSCOW. MARGINALIZE IT.

Marc C. Johnson

National Review, Apr. 27, 2018

Not since the end of the Cold War has a Russian leader received as much wall-to-wall attention from the American media as Vladimir Putin. Whether for the Skripal poisoning, the invasion of Ukraine, military action in Syria, or the ongoing cyber war against the West, there is a tendency in the American media to paint Russia as a multi-front threat to peace and democracy everywhere, and its president as omniscient and ten feet tall (he’s actually 5′7″). This scare-mongering is misplaced. The fact is, Russia is a weak state pretending to be a strong one.

To be sure, Moscow still has a fearsome nuclear arsenal, but this is its main —  some might say only  —  source of real military influence in today’s world. The country currently maintains approximately 4,300 stockpiled nuclear warheads, down from its Cold War peak of 45,000. Putin has pushed hard to upgrade this force in the last few years, recently unveiling the new “Sarmat” ICBM (nicknamed “Satan 2” by NATO).

But improvement of Russia’s strategic forces has come at a cost to the rest of Russia’s military, which remains more riddled with corruption and fraud than any other comparably sized force in the world. Despite attempts at modernization since 2008, Russia still relies on conscripts serving their mandatory year for at least half of its million active duty servicemen.

To keep up the modernization effort, Russia spends an increasingly large percentage of its GDP on the military: over 5.4 percent in 2016, compared with 3.3 percent in 2008. Over the same time frame, America’s defense spending went down in GDP terms, from a high of 4.6 percent to 3.3 percent in 2016. Many parts of Putin’s military verge on the decrepit despite the modernization campaign. The Russian Air Force still relies mainly on upgraded versions of attack aircraft designed in the 1970s, for example. And the Russian navy’s only aircraft carrier, the smoke-belching Admiral Kuznetsov, travels with a tugboat because it breaks down so frequently.

Putin financed military modernization at the expense of the budget, but its available cash is running out now. The financial cushion Putin’s administration built starting in 2000 is nearly gone. The Sovereign Reserve Fund, created early in the energy boom years by Putin’s trusted economist, Alexei Kudrin, finally evaporated in January. With few other options, Moscow acknowledged that it might raid a separate account, the National Welfare Fund (intended to pay pensions), to cover its budget obligations. Russia went from an 8 percent budget surplus to a nearly 4 percent deficit in barely four years.

Russian citizens now suffer from the effects of bad policy, profligate spending, endemic corruption, and plain old bad luck, the last resulting from the worldwide fall in the price of oil and gas. And the Trump administration’s recent application of additional financial sanctions will make it harder and more expensive for Russia to borrow money to pay its bills. This perfect storm of financial tribulations has left an already struggling country weak and its populace restive.

The recent Russian presidential election was highly questionable, as Putin won with an unlikely 77 percent of the vote and kept his only real competitor, Alexei Navalny, out of the race. Yet even with these advantages, Putin campaigned mainly on promises he can’t keep. He pledged a “war on poverty,” massive increases in infrastructure spending, a crackdown on tax evasion, and improvements to the country’s health-care system. Any one of these would be a heavy lift given Moscow’s tenuous financial situation, but fulfilling all of these promises is a pipe dream.

Conditions in Russia are far from healthy. According to a recent report from its own Ministry of Health, while residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg live at a level comparable to that of people in Eastern Europe, inhabitants of the rest of the vast country eke out an existence closer to Third World living standards. Russia’s average life expectancy is 70.5 years, miles behind America’s 79.3 years, and trailing even countries such as Egypt, Bolivia, and North Korea. And the chronic lack of medicine, hospital beds, and functioning equipment (to say nothing of qualified medical specialists outside urban areas) means patients must navigate a Kafkaesque nightmare of a health-care system.

Meanwhile, for a supposed world power, Russia’s economy is surprisingly monolithic. The country exports mainly extracted natural resources and military equipment rather than consumer goods or technology. When was the last time you bought something made in Russia that didn’t come in a bottle? The only area of commerce in which Russia leads is energy. The country is first in world oil production  —  barely ahead of Saudi Arabia  —  and second in gas, just behind the United States. But even that could soon change. The International Energy Agency expects the U.S. to overtake Russia as an oil producer no later than 2019 thanks to strong growth in American domestic shale production…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

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THE STRATEGIC GOALS OF A RESTORED RUSSIA

Michel Gurfinkiel

BESA, Apr. 15, 2018

The Soviet Union was not vanquished by the West in the Cold War. It simply disintegrated in the late 1980s, the result of cumulative failures. A military defeat or a popular insurrection might have resulted in the elimination of its seventy-year-old totalitarian infrastructure and superstructure (the Soviet “deep state”). A mere collapse, however, had very different consequences.

Beyond the abandonment of the Eastern European glacis and the formal independence of the fifteen Soviet Republics, the ruling Soviet elite stayed largely in place. This was especially true in the very heart of the Empire, the former Federative Socialist Soviet Republic of Russia, rebranded as the Russian Federation. The army and secret police stayed intact, the planned economy was turned into a state-controlled oligarchy, and nationalism was substituted for communism. Soon, Russia began to engage in systematic rebuilding and reconquest…

The primary strategic goal of a restored Russia is to bring together all the Russian-speaking peoples into a single nation-state. In 2014, after the forced incorporation into Russia of Crimea, a province of Ukraine under international law, Putin elaborated that, after the dissolution of the USSR, “millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” What is at stake is not just Transnistria or Crimea or eastern Ukraine, but the Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic States and in Central Asia. This contention resembles that of Adolf Hitler from 1933 to 1939, when he carved an ethnically defined Greater Germany into the heart of Europe.

A second Russian goal is to reestablish the former Soviet Union as a single geopolitical unit if not a single state: a “Eurasian community” with Russia as first among equals. This goal has been largely achieved. Most post-Soviet countries, with the glaring exceptions of the Baltic states, which joined both NATO and the EU, and of Ukraine, which strives to do the same, have reverted into a Russian sphere of influence. The only countervailing power so far, at least in Central Asia, has been China. A third Russian goal is to weaken or eliminate any rival power in Europe: be it the US and NATO, its military arm, or the EU, at least as long as it has close ties with the US. A fourth is to resume a world power role by reactivating support for former Soviet client regimes like Baathist Syria or Cuba, or striking new strategic alliances with emerging powers like Iran.

Sadly, most Western countries either failed to understand what was going on or decided to ignore it, even in the face of hard evidence. In his recently published book, The End of Europe, James Kirchick writes:  “As early as 1987,” when the Soviet Union still existed, “Mikhaïl Gorbachev advocated Soviet entry into what he called ‘the common European home’.” Ten years later, after the demise of the Soviet Union, “Boris Yeltsin hoped that Russia would one day join ‘greater Europe’.” In both cases, Western politicians and strategists responded enthusiastically: many insisted that “a whole raft of institutions, strategic theorems and intellectual currents born out of the struggle against Soviet communism” were now passé, and “it was time to supplant the bipolar order with more inclusive and ‘equitable’ arrangements.”

Seven years later, in 2005, the Gaullist president of France, Jacques Chirac, and the social-democratic Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, planned for “a European Security and Defense Union,” a “triangular” military alliance with Russia “that would exclude Washington, to parallel and perhaps one day replace NATO.” It did not appear to concern these analysts that “as the West slashed defense budgets and relocated resources to Asia and the Middle East,” Russia was undergoing “a massive conventional arms buildup to the point there exists now a perilous imbalance on NATO’s Eastern flank.”

Even more intriguing was the attitude of Barack Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2017. It did not do much to deter Russian inroads into the Caucasus and Ukraine, and opted from 2015 on for complete passivity in the Middle East and even active cooperation with Iran, the new Russian protégé.

Much was achieved, in this respect, by soft power. The old Soviet Union cultivated all kinds of networks in order to spy on foreign countries, or to influence them: from communist parties to front communist organizations, from fellow travelers to peace activists, from businessmen or companies interested in East-West trade to illiberal right-wingers. These networks accounted for perhaps one-half of Soviet global power. As Cold Warriors used to say, “East minus West equals zero”. Putin’s Russia is resorting to the same means and could have equal or perhaps even greater success.

 

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RESONANT SYRIA STRIKE SUGGESTS COORDINATED

US-ISRAEL MESSAGE TO RUSSIA AND IRAN

Avi Issacharoff

Times of Israel, Apr. 30, 2018

Hours after a mysterious “earthquake” — 2. 6 on the Richter scale — registered on the devices of the European Mediterranean Seismological Center, the circumstances behind the series of explosions that shook Syria overnight Sunday-Monday are starting to become clear. An increasing number of media organizations associated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are hinting that Israel was responsible. According to a report in the Al Akhbar newspaper, identified with Hezbollah, bunker buster missiles, which do not explode on impact but rather deep in the ground, hit bases in the Hama and Aleppo areas. Hence the “earthquake.”

The base that was attacked in the Hama area belongs to the 47th Brigade of President Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army, but apparently there were many Shiites and/or Iranians in the area. The Syrian Human Rights Observatory (based in London) reported that 26 people were killed in this attack, Iranians among them. Another report spoke of 38 fatalities. Whatever the case, it is clear that the strike was highly unusual in several respects.

First and foremost was the sheer power of the attack. The pictures and the sounds, and the large number of casualties, point to an incident of larger scale than those to which we have become accustomed. We are not talking here about just another strike on another Hezbollah convoy, but rather what would appear to be a new step in what is now the almost-open warfare being waged between Iran and Israel in recent weeks on Syrian territory. The same player that earlier this month attacked the T-4 airbase, from which an Iranian attack drone was launched into Israel in February, apparently struck again overnight Sunday-Monday, taking the gloves off and moving into a new level of military confrontation.

Second, not only is the attacking force not rushing to take responsibility, but those who are being attacked are not hurrying to assign blame. That is to say, there may be hints regarding ostensible Israeli responsibility, but there has been no direct accusation — at least not at the time of writing.

Indeed, one newspaper associated with the Assad regime, Tishreen, has even claimed that the attack was carried out by US and UK forces using ballistic missiles fired from Jordan. This report would appear to be somewhat improbable, but the bottom line is that Damascus, Tehran and even Moscow would seem to be wary at this stage of issuing declarations that might require them to retaliate against Israel, or cause them to appear to be making empty threats in light of Iran’s repeated public promises after the last attack, on T-4, that retaliation against Israel would emphatically follow.

Third, the latest strike was carried out at a time when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting the region, and just a few hours after he held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two of them used the opportunity to issue no shortage of threats and promises to thwart Iran’s aggression and nuclear ambitions.

Late Sunday, news also broke of a phone call between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has been meeting with his US counterpart James Mattis in Washington. And less than a week ago, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the US army’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose sphere of responsibility includes Syria and Iran, made a largely unpublicized visit to Israel.

All this is beginning to look rather like a coordinated Israeli-American operation to limit Iran’s military activities in Syria — simultaneously conveying the message to Moscow that Russia’s green light for Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria is not acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington. These developments are unfolding during a highly dramatic period in the region, with the US two weeks away from opening its embassy in Jerusalem. Of most specific relevance, however, is the fact that in less than two weeks the Trump administration will make its decision on whether or not to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.

In that light, the resonant strikes in Syria overnight will doubtless constitute considerable food for thought for Tehran, and indeed Moscow, regarding their next moves in Syria and maybe in other places as well.

 

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UKRAINE: IS RUSSIA PLANNING A NEW INVASION?

Judith Bergman

Gatestone Institute, May 1, 2018

This April marks the fourth year of the ongoing war in Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and Russian backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, also known as the Donbas region. Prior to the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, Russia annexed Crimea.

Russia’s aggression into Ukraine came in direct violation of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under the memorandum, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, Russia reaffirmed its “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” and promised that none of its weapons would ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Now, the question of further Russian or Russian-backed military operations in Ukraine has surfaced. In March, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asserted that Russia has been strengthening its military presence on the border of Ukraine. According to Poroshenko: “For more than one year, we have been repelling Russia’s military aggression on the front line… In his latest report General Zabrodsky reported in detail on the strengthening of the military presence of the Russian Federation along our border and continued stay of Russia’s regular troops in the occupied territories”. Poroshenko explained that the Russians have, since 2014, deployed and reorganized their forces in a way that will be able to support a rapid invasion both from the north and from east of Ukraine. “Several mechanized divisions are fully prepared for intervention,” he said.

In April, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak also claimed that Russia “has massed 19 battalion tactical groups of the combat echelon and reserve forces with over 77,000 troops,” adding that they have almost 1,000 tanks, 2,300 combat vehicles, over 1,100 artillery systems and about 400 multiple rocket launchers. According to Poltorak, 40,000 Russian troops, which he detailed as an integral part of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces, are stationed in the Donbas. Also according to Poltorak, in 2017 Russia’s military forces shelled Ukrainian army positions in Donbas more than 15,000 times.

There appears to be some internal disagreement on the exact number of Russian forces amassing on Ukraine. At the Kyiv Security Forum, on April 13, the chairman of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council Oleksandr Turchynov noted: “After four years of war, Russia has at least 260,000 troops deployed along the Ukrainian border, in addition to another 35,000 troops in the Donbas and 30,000 in Crimea, who could be used to conduct a large-scale continental war… The Russian aggressor is preparing a powerful force in Crimea — and not only to protect its presence there. And the two occupation army corps in the Donbas have been positioned to provide cover and buy time for the main force to deploy at the borderline.”

Turchynov also warned that the 260,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border are ready to advance with 3,500 tanks, 11,000 soft-skin vehicles, 4,000 artillery units, and over 1,000 multiple launch rocket systems. Russia, according to Tuchynov, has also fielded four guided-missile brigades in the region. The brigades, he says, are armed with Iskander-K cruise missile systems, which have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers. Apart from investing in conventional arms, Russia is also enhancing its hybrid warfare capabilities, “including terror attacks and subversive actions,” in Ukraine, Turchynov said.

First Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Viktor Kononenko, also recently reported that Russia might be planning another attempt to destabilize Ukraine in the fall. He said that the SBU has information on Russia’s plans, including “the existence of a group in Putin’s entourage, which has as goal to create prerequisites for the introduction of Russian troops to Ukraine in autumn under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population”. He added that Moscow allegedly plans to use criminals and other criminal-related structures “for beating participants of pro-Russian events and religious processions.”

The war in Ukraine has already exacted a steep price. On April 21, UN representative to Ukraine, Neal Walker, announced that, “After four years of conflict, 3.4 million people in Ukraine are struggling to cope with the impact of the humanitarian crisis and urgently require humanitarian assistance and protection”. More than 2,500 civilian men, women and children have been killed, and more than 9,000 injured in the past four years, according to the UN. Landmines in eastern Ukraine are affecting1.9 million people. “Last week,” Walker said, “landmines killed a family of four in eastern Ukraine. In 2017, over 235 civilians were killed or injured by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.”…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

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On Topic Links

Let’s Make A Deal – But Do The Russians Want One?: Yigal Carmon, MEMRI, Apr. 24, 2018 —In recent days, German media[1] have reported that the SPD and the CDU are discussing the possibility of offering Russia a deal on Syria, indirectly addressing Iran, which is the hardest nut to crack in the Syria crisis, even more so than President Bashar Al-Assad.

Despite His Victory, Putin’s Problems Will Grow: Emil Avdaliani, BESA, Apr. 15, 2018—In terms of foreign policy, Putin’s fourth term can be expected to be characterized by the challenge of an invigorated and united western front. Russian geopolitical influence in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova has diminished over the past decade.

The Post-Election Ruminations of Vladimir Putin: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Tablet, Mar. 21, 2018—Vladimir Putin is content. He spent some time at the gym. He took a virile shower, followed by a brief muscle-flexing, bare-chested strut in front of his favorite bodyguards. He flopped down into one of the gaudily gilded Louis XV armchairs that line the halls of the Kremlin. And then, alone, tired, strong, Russian, and triumphant, he let his thoughts wander.

Novichok: How a Deadly Cold War Poison has Resurfaced in a Quiet English Town: Vladimir Isachenkov, National Post, Apr. 23, 2018 —During the Cold War, Soviet scientists at a secret, high-security lab worked frantically to counter the latest U.S. chemical weapons. More than 40 years later, the nerve agent they developed apparently turned up in a quiet English town, where it nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter.